Prelude Two - To Hope

Beneath the living heartbeat thrumming under Li Yong-Ri’s spacesuit, there rang the nuclear heartbeat of his warship the Spirit West, stalwart and steady through a labyrinth of steel. Presently they seemed to become one, and then he was one with his ship and its crew. He closed his eyes.

“Three contacts, commander.”

Yong-Ri’s eyes shot wide open. A third heartbeat joined the fray, the heartbeat of the Fragment digging into the skin of his sternum, strung on the end of a thin titanium chain. Its whispers broke the steady silence and entrancing rhythm of his starship. He sensed its power, and sighed contentedly. Fifty years had made his body weak, but he had remained strong in other ways, kept the gift of his greatest blessing.

A control panel protruded from the ceiling before Yong-Ri, crowded with switches and readouts and monitors. Monitors—now, he had neither eyes for segment displays nor gauges, only for the phosphor dots and cathode rays burning into curved glass; monitors. Six of the displays glared into Yong-Ri’s eyes. Together, they lit the dim bridge of the Spirit with an ethereal haze.

“Commander?” His first officer repeated.

Among them, among it all, Yong-Ri rested his gaze on one monitor. It showed the scoped view of a video-camera mounted to the bow of the Spirit. The ship had no true windows, so it would suffice. Between scanlines, lay the pure blackness of space, and upon it, blotting pinprick stars, the pale blue crescent of a planet. Tal, of humanity’s most distant worlds. Tal, at fate’s end.

“How’s our heading, Lin-Tao?” He said, eying his control panel’s radar. It shimmered green with each sensor sweep, the Spirit West at its centre. And there, in the far distance, three wavering points of light.

“Trajectory nominal,” responded his first officer. “Perihelion burn due in one hour. Then we land in half an hour.”

“And the contacts?”

“In medium orbit, fifteen thousand kilometres from our position.”

Yong-Ri pressed his hand against his chest, feeling the Fragment there. Feeling it a part of his own body, his own mind. And there, already, the sickness began to spread, like cold blackness under his skin. Such was the ailment that befell all that wore their Fragments for too long.

His first officer spoke: “Shall we proceed, commander?”

Yong-Ri thought for a moment; in the absence of acceleration, the Spirit was weightless, but still he did not let his arms relax and drift into the air. At every chance, he had to maintain an air of proper confidence, and even such little things he had learned to control to that end.

He responded, with a voice far calmer than he felt: “Are they of the Dynasty?”

Everything in the mission had gone right. Everything, from the Spirit West’s departure from Xarien to its journey through five voidcaster, evading the Dynasty’s eyes all throughout. Everything, except now for those contacts. They should not have been there, not now, not during these scarce twenty-five hours of the half-year when enforcers changed shifts.

Now, the Spirit West’s pilot spoke.

“Dynasty corvettes, from their silhouette and radiator signatures, commander.”

A murmur swept across the ship’s bridge. Yong-Ri’s fingers danced across his control panel, and upon his monitor he brought a hazy image of the corvettes.

“Calm, now. We have prepared for this. Sei-Chan, assess our enemy’s capabilities.”

“Already have, commander,” said the navigator. “Their technology is better than ours, of course, but we have size advantage. Their firepower is at best half ours.”

Yong-Ri needed little time to think, for long ago he had already known the conclusion. To survive, was to act; rebellion spared no hesitance. Waiting meant death. The theory came simple to Pleiades Front commanders like him: becoming aware of the presence of Dynasty forces, one must attack first and swiftly, leaving no chance for the enemy to strike back. To stop and negotiate, only meant risk.

“Good. All hands on deck!” Yong-Ri announced through the starship’s speakers. “Prepare the torpedo tubes. Charge the point-defence capacitors. Load the railguns. Hurry!”

The contacts approached in range of the Spirit’s weapons. Yong-Ri’s heartbeat raced. Whispers arose. Sickness spread. And he sensed a deep disquiet around him, among the hazy light of the bridge, a disquiet of fate’s threads broken and left frayed.

“We are not warriors,” he found himself saying to his crew. “We fight, and fiercely we do, but we are not warriors. We reach the end of this journey not with violence in our hearts and glory in our minds, but hope in our souls. Hope for something better. Hope for change.”

Hope for forgiveness.

Closer, came the Dynasty cruisers.

“There is fear in all of us. I do not ask you to suppress it. Let your fear’s river flow through you, and when it is done let only resolve remain. Fear, but let not your fear last.” Yong-Ri took a deep breath, eyes closed to all but the solar wind flashing against his vision. “And if you still fear, then remember the cultures and tongues the Dynasty has snuffed. Remember the labourers and slaves they whip while they drink their fine wines. Remember the destitute and desperate wandering the night. And remember that you fight to make it right!”

His crew cheered. His Fragment sickness ebbed.

“Open fire!” He cried.

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